CARACAS, Venezuela — Sixty-seven days after Venezuelans last saw him, President Hugo Chavez reappeared Friday when government officials televised photographs of him recuperating in Cuba with two of his daughters at his side.
The images were the first evidence presented to Venezuelans that Chavez, who was last seen publicly Dec. 10 when he boarded a plane to Cuba for a fourth surgery to remove cancerous tissue, was alive and convalescing.
In the photos, Chavez smiles from a hospital bed while flanked by daughters Maria Gabriela and Rosa Virginia. They are pictured looking at Thursday’s edition of Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma, the images serving as a sort of proof of life to those who doubted that El Comandante remained alive. The photos were shown on state television by Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza, Chavez’s son-in-law.
The photographs have come as tensions have flared in Venezuela, with opposition leaders increasingly demanding to see evidence that Chavez has been recuperating, as his aides have claimed.
Although he had once held forth on television as if he were the host of a reality show, there has been nothing but silence since his December surgery. No photographs or video had been released. Chavez missed his Jan. 10 swearing in for a fourth term, following a bruising reelection campaign last year. He had also stopped posting on Twitter and making late-night phone calls to his favorite state television interviewers.
Then on Friday morning, Information Minister Ernesto Villegas said that after a “complicated postoperative process, the patient is conscious, with his intellectual functions intact, in close communication with his government team.”
Villegas said that a respiratory infection had been controlled but that Chavez still faced difficulties. “Under these circumstances, which are being treated, the commander is currently breathing through a tracheal tube,” he said.
Doctors were “applying energetic treatment for the illness,” he said, adding that there could be complications. The government has not said what kind of cancer Chavez has, whether it is spreading or what the prognosis is.
But Villegas struck a hopeful tone in his public comments, saying: “We are confident, along with the Venezuelans and the other peoples of the world, that Chavez will overcome these delicate circumstances sooner rather than later to accompany his people on the path toward new victories.”
The disclosure came a day after Henrique Capriles, the 40-year-old leader of Venezuela’s opposition, demanded that the government present details about the president’s health. Directing his comments at Venezuelan officials, Capriles said that if Chavez did not appear publicly “then you’re lying” about him being in charge of the day-to-day affairs of government.
Indeed, some Venezuelans had begun to wonder whether the man who single-handedly ran this country for 14 years was really in charge, even as Chavez’s lieutenants contended that he had been closely involved in every key decision over the past two months.
This past week, Arreaza said in public comments that Chavez had so meticulously analyzed images from Venezuela’s new satellite that he was prompted to order spot inspections of untilled land.
The president had also ordered increased spending on state factories, another minister reported, and approved a devaluation of the currency that went into effect Wednesday.
The wheels of government, to be sure, had still been churning in this oil-rich country.
But for some people here, Venezuela has been in a sort of tropical twilight zone, with officials resolutely contending that Chavez is involved in every intricate detail of governance, even though no one outside of a small cadre of ministers and family members had access to him.
“We’re living in a fantasy world,” said Aida Barreto, 56, who says that, like other Venezuelans, she’s exasperated by the political uncertainty. “I think what they are telling us are lies, really, because we’re being governed by someone we can’t see. And the only one who we obey and can’t see is God.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela is being buffeted by a series of crises that seem magnified because of questions about who really is the central authority in the government.
In January, a prison riot left 58 dead, while sky-high inflation is eating into Venezuelans’ earnings. Food shortages, a fact of life for years, seemed to grow worse, with a vast range of items, including chicken, cooking oil and flour, missing from many stores’ shelves. Topping it off was the devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar by 32 percent, a policy move analysts say the government was forced to make because of heavy campaign-related spending last year that nearly tripled the fiscal deficit.
This week at the giant Excelsior Gama supermarket, shelves for chicken and turkey were empty; there was no toilet paper or the flour used in cornmeal cakes. The aisles carrying cleaning supplies were mostly empty.
“Last week, there was a lot of toilet paper, now there isn’t any. Why?” said Galeazzo Ferrari, 63, an art gallery manager, as he guided his cart through a half-empty aisle.
Johanna Hauser, 50, a former bank worker, said it has gotten to the point that when she finds a product that has been missing for weeks — say corn oil — she will call relatives or friends who quickly rush to the store to stock up.
“It’s like a carnival,” she said. “It’s like an adventure. You come here, and products are missing, so you go to try to find them wherever you can.”
The government had reacted to the criticism by taking a page from Chavez’s playbook — charging that companies hoard products to drive up prices and that political opponents are using Chavez’s absence to destabilize the state and plot an assassination of top administration officials.
“They’ve orchestrated a macabre and criminal plot with the purpose of killing us, something they won’t be able to achieve,” Vice President Nicolas Maduro recently told supporters, claiming he was a target.
He then promised “an iron fist against the conspiracy of the right,” without providing evidence of the plot or naming the conspirators.
The government has also begun legal proceedings against Globovision, the only anti-Chavez television network in the country, saying that its coverage of Chavez’s health crisis is causing “anxiety” in the country.
At the same time, state television networks have been playing one after another spot featuring Chavez hugging children or being lauded by older Venezuelans for his social policies.
“Get better,” says an elderly woman in one ad. “We need you in the country.” The spots finish with these words: “Now, more than ever, it’s with Chavez.”
But the few details released about the president’s condition have been vague.
And some of those who had released the details surprised Venezuelans. Earlier this week, for instance, the Cuban government issued the transcript of an interview with Fidel Castro, in which Cuba’s ex-president reported that Chavez “is recovering” although it has been “difficult and hard.”
Castro’s comments, however, had been made nine days earlier, Feb. 3, and the delay in their publication was not explained.
Last Saturday, Venezuela’s foreign minister, Elias Jaua, said Chavez was going through a “slow, slow recovery process.” He added that Chavez is “fighting his battle with great faith, and clinging to Christ and clinging to life.”
Then on Wednesday, Maduro said Chavez was “receiving complementary treatments” that he called “extremely complex and tough treatments.” The vice president did not elaborate on what kind of treatments they were.
Despite the uncertainty, there is no void of power, said Luis Vicente Leon, a pollster who runs the Caracas firm Datanalisis. He said that Chavez’s illness increased his approval ratings in December, the last month that Datanalisis had completed a political poll in the country.
Leon said the personal, almost-mystical connection Chavez has with poor Venezuelans has given the president’s aides time to ponder the options they might have to take once it becomes clear whether or not Chavez will return to govern.
“It’s a strange situation,” Leon said. “But if Chavez is not making decisions, Maduro and his guys are making decisions in the name of Chavez, and the country is accepting that. So at the end, it’s almost the same.”